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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ceaselessly into the future

In The Beautiful and the Damned, Siddhartha Deb draws an unremitting portrait of a nation that’s struggling to remake itself

Patriots aren’t supposed to get enraged by the inequalities within Indian society… just as they aren’t supposed to care about the unmarked graves in Kashmir. They aren’t supposed to fret about the large scale depredation of the environment or think about farmer suicides. The good Indian shouldn’t bother about migrant labourers, the dispossessed and the starving, and the way the mainstream treats whoever is perceived as ‘the other’. That’s because the good Indian is none of those things. He belongs to that sliver of India shining with its gated communities and glistening malls, is upper caste, self-possessed, believes he is in charge of his own destiny, can mould his life to his dreams and make things work the way he wants them to. Still, good Indians need the dose of reality that The Beautiful and the Damned delivers.

The blurb describes Deb’s latest book as a combination of “personal narrative, travelogue, reportage, penetrating analysis and the stories of many individuals across a vast range of geographical and social circumstances” and it is all that. In its breadth and its insistent need to understand this disparate and increasingly desperate country, it, quite predictably, reminds the reader of VS Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now. But while the authorial voice in Naipaul is always somewhat distant, Deb comes across as accessible, sensitive, sad, humorous and angry all at the same time.

He talks to everyone. Embittered activists, desperate farmers, prosperous seed traders, and pimps. And each of them has a sympathetic story to tell. In a curious way, there are no real human villains in the book only the faceless government and the forces of globalization that have altered the way India lives and have transformed us from a people who were once intent on achieving social justice and focussed on intellectual progress to a rapacious nation eager to make a quick buck whatever the cost.

The book’s first chapter, which dealt with IIPM’s Arindam Chaudhuri, as everyone already knows, has been excised from the Indian edition owing to the defamation suit the management guru chose to file against the book in, of all places, Silchar. Clearly, Mr Chaudhuri can’t tell a sympathetic portrait when he sees one. The essay had been widely circulated on the internet after it appeared in both Caravan and n+1 magazine. Far from being a hatchet job, it showed up the snobbery of bloggers and IIM graduates who put Chaudhuri down as a social upstart. Alas, such nuance was lost on Chaudhuri and as a result, the Indian edition is missing its first rather interesting chapter.

But there is much incisive writing in The Beautiful and the Damned. Take this paragraph from Ghosts in the Machine: The Engineer’s Burden:
“Most of the engineers I know are very likeable people, but what I know of them as individuals clashes with what I see of them in the aggregate. The engineer celebrated for being clean cut and decent in public, especially in the West, is often also the one lurking on websites, filling cyberspace with viral chatter that is sectarian, sexist and racist, convinced always of his own meritoriousness and ready to pour invective on those who disagree with him. If there is a schizoid personality at work here, that seems to be furthered by the fact that the engineer is both a public persona and a rather enigmatic figure.”

Deb’s need to understand the Indian engineer leads him to Bangalore where he meets Chak with his devotion to a new age guru, SS, a ‘nano poet’ and Kartik, a raving RSS man. Through them and through a chance encounter with street toughs from the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, he presents a sharp snapshot of life in Bangalore.
Then, there are the studies of the red sorghum battles of Andhra Pradesh, the plunder of its land, the vast armies of migrant labourers wandering the country in search of work and in a touching final chapter, a meeting with Esther, the girl from Manipur who works in a large restaurant in unfriendly New Delhi and with Luni, a sex worker in rural Manipur. Deb’s people are memorable and the reader keeps thinking of their aspirations, wondering if their dreams come true long after he’s turned the last page.
Unsympathetic reviewers have suggested the book is “more a reflection of an armchair leftist’s world view than a real assessment of the India we live in today.” (Business Standard) but then you would hardly expect rave reviews for a book such as this one from an Indian business paper. Especially in an era when only cheerleading chants and eulogies to Bharat Mata are deemed acceptable.

The success of Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned; Life In The New India lies in how it makes the good Indian take a break from his ceaseless activity, his nonstop attempt to remake himself and reflect that perhaps he isn’t as different from that farmer in the hinterland, that migrant worker in the blighted factories of Kothur, that prosperous seed trader on the verge of bankruptcy, that he isn’t as cocooned as he thought.

The Beautiful and the Damned
By Siddhartha Deb
Penguin Viking
Rs 499

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